Best Bizarro A Socially Prominent Ghost

Leland Stanford Jr.

Photo by Larry Dalton

One afternoon, while meandering around Midtown, I stumbled into St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at 15th and J streets. Viewing sunlight as filtered through stained glass often can make for a deeply spiritual experience—and the three-panel window on the east wall was no anomaly in this respect. If glass, albeit stained or tinted, can translate profound grief into beams of light, then the Stanford Window—with its Victorian depiction of angels who deliver the baby, then take away the young adult—was certainly doing a number on me.

The window, which dates from the early 1890s, was donated by Jane Stanford, the grieving mother of Leland Stanford Jr., who died of typhoid fever two months short of his 16th birthday while visiting Florence. Oral history had it that it was a Tiffany, but it was designed and fabricated by John Mallon of the Pacific Art Glass Company in San Francisco, with input from Mrs. Stanford.

Apparently young Stanford was quite the prodigy; he’d built a miniature railroad on the family’s horse farm in Palo Alto, he had a passionate thirst for art and archaeology, he was fluent in French. He was the only child of Jane and Leland Senior, and had he lived he would have inherited the wealth and political power accumulated by his father, who founded what became the Southern Pacific Railroad (with Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins and Collis P. Livingston) and was elected governor of California in 1862.

While the Stanfords spent some of their time at their Palo Alto farm, where the elder Stanford had developed a formula for breeding trotting horses, they also resided at 800 N St., in a huge, 19,000-square-foot Italianate mansion. After young Stanford died, it must have been a pretty empty place.

Accounts vary on what happened next. Some claim that Leland Stanford awoke from a dream in Florence with the firm conviction that he was destined to help all children.

A story we like better appears, in skeletal form, in local alchemist, paranormal researcher and author Dennis William Hauck’s 1994 book Haunted Places, the National Directory: Ghostly Abodes, Sacred Sites, UFO Landings and Other Supernatural Locations (Penguin trade paperback, 486 pages, $16.95). According to Hauck, it was in this house that Leland Stanford Jr. appeared to his father one night. Echoing Charles Dickens’ yuletide tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, the apparition persuaded the radically shaken railroad baron that he might find a better use for his accumulated pile of gelt than what Ambrose Bierce once called “the final and funniest folly of the rich”—i.e., one of those cool Corinthian-revival crypts at Cypress Lawn in Colma that scream, “Look at me, a former master of the universe!”

Stanford the living, being in a particularly receptive frame of mind at that moment, agreed: Yes, he told the ghost, I will take your suggestion. I will found a university that will educate young men.

That, he did, on his horse farm in Palo Alto.

The Stanford Mansion still stands today, surrounded by a cyclone fence, because it is in the process of being restored. It remains a symbol of Sacramento’s bygone era of Victorian splendor.

Drive 11 blocks south on 9th Street, and you’ll find another of Sacramento’s Victorian treasures, the Old City Cemetery at the corner of Broadway and Riverside Boulevard. I’ve never seen any ghosts there (unlike the Stanford Mansion, which sets off my supernatural alarm bells every time I go by it), but it’s one of the best places in town to go meditate on the ephemeral nature of life. If you like to do that sort of thing.